The fan favorite appearing on two seasons of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” Chef Antonia Lofaso is in the process of renovating her newly purchased Venice Beach, California, home with her ultimate kitchen as the end goal. She may seem crazy to add one more thing to her plate as the Executive Chef at Black Market Liquor Bar in Studio City, California, the face of Campbell’s "Address Your Heart" health campaign, and author of the newly released Busy Mom’s Cookbook. But while she may not be trading in her whisk for a hammer just yet, her dad is doing the renovation himself in true DIY fashion so she has little to worry about.
I met with Antonia at her restaurant, where she’s known for cooking up dishes like deviled quail eggs, fried cauliflower, and stuffed zuchinni flowers. Next to the bustle from the kitchen staff preparing for the evening opening, she shared how her love of food and family has influenced her kitchen design.
So, what has the process of finding this house been like?
We were looking to move from where we were living for so many years in Beverly Hills. In Venice, people were swooping in paying cash for houses, and I was being outbid within two days of putting in an offer. It was just crazy. This little old 93-year-old woman sold me her house because I promised I would take care of her lemon tree and told her I wanted to raise my daughter there. She had been there since 1943. Nothing has been done to the house. Everything else on the block is either in redevelopment or still belongs to old-school people who haven’t touched their houses. That’s kind of the beauty of Venice right now is that there’s either a mini mansion, or there’s this awesome little beach house, which is what I have right now.
When did you start the renovation and when do you think it will be done?
We started it last year, and it should be done by the summer. But my dad has been doing everything with one of his buddies. He’s been in construction his entire life. If I hired anyone else to come in it would be an insult.
What are your general plans for the kitchen?
I’m going to do Italian Tuscan tile everywhere. I’m thinking something like my grandmother’s rustic kitchen in Italy, with maybe a hard stoneware floor. I want a big sink where we can just dump all the dishes in and spray them. This kitchen is going to be workable–nothing prissy. I’m going to spend money on my oven, not cabinetry. The island in the center will have cabinetry in the bottom for stuff I don’t want to display like Tupperware, and drawers for my small gadgets. But the same stainless steel racks that I have here at Black Market that hold all my dry goods and pots and pans is what I’m going to have at home so I can display all my plates and cups and my waffle maker. It’s just more functional, and I will have my containers of flour and sugar, all my nice olive oils and boxes of cereal out. And the reason you do it is so that there’s no waste. You’re not looking for that 8-year-old box of salt back there. In my mom’s kitchen I’m like, “How long has this can of baked beans been in here?” I may not even have a dishwasher. My big thing is making my daughter wash her plate after she eats. That’s how I grew up. Even now when people come over we all just wash and dry the dishes together. And also, I’m looking to see if I can have space for a wok.
Well I‘m glad you brought that up because I know healthy eating is important to you, as the face of the Campbell’s Address Your Heart campaign. Like the wok, what other types of things do you suggest incorporating that facilitate healthy eating?
For me, equipment is important. A steamer and broiler is most important, and your grill outside. I feel people don’t use their broiler like back in the day when your parents used to. But you get that similar crust that you look for when you’re searing without the oil, and same with the grill. The grill is the perfect place whether you’re searing a piece of chicken, fish, or lean meat. It’s just a great cooking component without having to use all the oil.
Going back to the grill--outside entertaining is a part of life here in Southern California. Do you love that part of living here?
Yes! I’m basically building a kitchen outside, too. I will have refrigerators outside, and I’m having a table built with an herb garden going down the center of the table. When you’re talking about how you make your food a little bit more fresh and desirable without all the fat, it’s fresh herbs. So as you’re sitting and eating all around the table, we’ll have fresh basil, fresh thyme, whatever you want for your plate.
I love that idea. So where is all your inspiration for this coming from? Are you clipping pictures from magazines or looking on Pinterest?
My partner here at Black Market--his wife is a designer. She designed Black Market and she’s helping design our next venue. She said to me, “I know you, I know what’s important to you. I’m just going to send you pictures of stuff and tell me what you like.” Even though I’m an artist for food, when it comes to designing I don’t really know what I want right away. People don’t understand when they first start to design something that it’s going to reflect your personality. And I’m asking myself, “Who am I?” It’s so much more soul searching than I had anticipated. This is the first time I’m in my home by myself, with just my daughter. What do I want this home to look like? What does our life look like?
Since we’re on the subject of identity, how do you use the kitchen differently at home than when you’re here at the restaurant or cooking somewhere else?
It’s funny because I kind of don’t. The same way we opened the kitchen up here at Black House, it will be open enough at home to where I can be a part of what’s happening here, but not overly front and center. Growing up, at Christmas Eve my mom would be cooking during the meal because we always did everything in courses. We didn’t just have a couple bites here and there. It was always courses of food. So I need to be a part of what’s going on at the table, but also cooking.
It seems like growing up, the kitchen was a place where your family really congregated.
The kitchen is the heart of the house, as far as I’m concerned. You can tell people’s love of family and their way of being if their kitchen is involved. I’ve been in homes where you walk into the kitchen and you know that’s not the place to hang out. And I’ve been in homes where the kitchen is so tiny and still, everyone is sitting around. There’s a sense of warmth, a sense of community, a sense of family when people are drawn to your kitchen --my grandmother’s house was like that. My aunt has a house on Long Island where there’s nowhere to even sit in her kitchen it’s so small, but we find ourselves sitting on the floor. I’ll sit on the floor with the kids while she’s cooking because something just brings you there.
So, what are your feelings about a formal dining room? Do you prefer having a seating area in the kitchen so you can converse with people when you’re entertaining?
It’s going to be both for me. I grew up where we always sat at the kitchen table. What made it more like dining was when my mom put a linen tablecloth on it. In the center island will be seating, because in the morning when my daughter’s getting ready for school, I want be in the same room as her while she’s eating. I just don’t like leaving kids to eat in a room by themselves. It should be communal. So if I’m washing dishes, or getting a lunch ready or prepping something for dinner, she can be front and center so I can communicate with here while I’m moving about. It’s about us spending time together and talking and being in that moment. We don’t sit in front of the TV and eat. Those moments are on Friday nights, where you make that the party time and you throw pillows down and make snacks.
Speaking of your daughter, I know your new cookbook is focused on healthy meals parents can make for and with their kids. How important do you think it is to have a space you enjoy cooking in that will make people want to cook with their kids?
Strangely enough, I don’t think those two go together. I’ve lived in beautiful homes and I’ve lived in small New York City apartments, and I’ve cooked continuously in all of them. In my apartment in New York City, the closet was in the kitchen. I had to start Thanksgiving dinner the day before because I had an oven that, maybe, fit my turkey in it. But that didn’t deter me from having 15 people in my house for Thanksgiving dinner. I feel like that motivation needs to come from somewhere deeper. You can’t say “I can’t cook because it’s so hard because my kitchen doesn’t work.” The motivation to cook with your family comes from something so much deeper than what utensils you have, what your kitchen looks like, or having the right equipment. If you waited for that, it’s never going to happen. I wouldn’t have been able to cook for my daughter this entire year. When I first got this house, my aunt and cousins came over. I had none of my stuff unpacked, and I made this huge dinner of lobster and crab claws and salads. We put together two old patio tables, some people were sitting on old furniture, some people had plastic forks, some people had regular forks. And it was probably one of the best dinners I ever had.
Did you start the whole redesign right away, or did you try to live in the house first and figure out what you wanted?
We tried to live in the house first. I still feel that the energy of the older people who lived here is still here. It was very stagnant at first. I felt displaced. I felt like it wasn’t my home. First we started the bathroom, which is actually going to be done in ten days, and then we’re moving straight to the kitchen. But it was funny because we cleaned off the walls and the popcorn ceiling in the living room, and then from that I was like, “I can’t work in this kitchen, pull these walls down!” So we did some basic stuff and we’ll revisit the kitchen soon.
So, you know your way around the kitchen, but what about the construction site? Are you actively helping your dad with the work?
I’m definitely not building stuff with him, but maybe in the kitchen I will be. The closest I came the other day was when I heard something fall in the bathroom and I ran in there and he was putting drywall up and I’m like, “OK, Dad, you’re not 40 anymore. You can’t hold up a piece of drywall in one hand and drill at the same time.” He told me to get my brother for help, but I told him I can hold up a piece of drywall! My dad has been in so many homes and done so much construction his whole life, but he’s a minimalist. If it were up to him, everything would be white walls, the bathroom would be white tile, and he would say that all you need is a Mason jar with your toothbrush in it and a shave kit. And I want color. Anything that will cost me money, he doesn’t want to do. He will come back from Home Depot and tell me, “Do you know how much drywall is now?” And I’m like, “Please don’t start those conversations with me!” But I’m very hands on. And the funny thing is, I have two brothers, but I’m the only one who wants to learn about this stuff. He sits there and explains things to me. I ask him what goes behind the tile in the bathroom, because all I see right now is 2x4s. And building permits with all the codes for the fire hazards, and window separations and the doors…I’m learning so much through this entire process.
Well, I think it’s so great your dad is doing this because it will really feel like your home more than if a stranger did the work.
Yes, actually people in Venice name their properties like they do in Italy. The people across the way named theirs Casa De Mi Abuelos. I think I’m going to name my house Casa De Mi Padre, because he built it.
For a chance to win your own $50,000 kitchen makeover, enter Campbell's contest at http://www.addressyourheart.com.